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Monday, January 24th, 2011

In Defense of Judd Apatow's Female Characters

I’m not going to lie: I’m pretty excited that Judd Apatow is working on another movie for Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s characters from Knocked Up. Some might be surprised by this: as I write this piece, I’m listening to a Liz Phair Pandora station, taking a break from writing an all-female sketch show, and preparing for a shoot tonight for a follow-up project to the web series about a feminist magazine I co-created last year. I mean, isn’t Judd Apatow supposed to be sexist?

Here’s the thing: for someone who’s made his name as the poet laureate of twentysomething straight dudes, Apatow actually writes really good parts for women. Don’t get me wrong: Apatow movies are still about men, but, despite the allegations of sexism that have been leveled at him by everyone from Mike White to Katherine Heigl, the women in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People are real people with their own agency — a rare thing in mainstream comedies.

Let’s start with The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Though it’s filled with broad jokes (see: the waxing scene), the relationship between Steve Carell’s Andy and Catherine Keener’s Trish is played intelligently. Unlike in, say, every Adam Sandler movie from the 90s, where the love interest seems to be there just to prove his character’s heterosexuality, we get a sense of why Andy and Trish love each other: they’re both smart, considerate, funny people who seem evenly-matched, except for the whole virgin thing. Trish is, to use a word I hate, quirky: she runs a confusingly non-functional storefront dedicated to selling people’s stuff on eBay and she yells at telemarketers with impunity. She’s not, however, a standard issue Manic Pixie Dream Girl: she’s an adult with kids and a grandkid, for one thing, and, rather than helping Andy loosen his buttoned-up ways, they both seem immediately comfortable and relaxed in each others’ presence. When Trish finally goes to Andy’s apartment and finds a giant box of porn and an anatomical model of a vagina, she is genuinely creeped out — a top-of-the-intelligence move that you don’t find too often. Elsewhere in the movie, Leslie Mann, Jane Lynch, Mindy Kaling, and Elizabeth Banks all get to make big comedic choices, another movie rarity.

Out of all Apatow’s movies, Knocked Up gets the most flack for sexism. Star Katherine Heigl famously said in a Vanity Fair interview that she thinks the movie is “a little sexist. It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys.” First: I’m so glad that the star of The Ugly Truth and The Killers is enlightening us on what, exactly, makes a movie sexist. Second: she’s wrong. Knocked Up is on the side of Heigl’s Alison and Leslie Mann’s Debbie without putting them on a pedestal. They’re both real people who, because of a sexist larger world (when Paul Rudd’s Pete is running off to his fantasy baseball league, he’s assuming Debbie can take care of their daughters) have to deal with the mess the movie’s immature dudes are making (sometimes literally, as when Debbi complains that Pete is jerking off into their good towels, which, honestly, is pretty rude). If you think that makes them shrews or bitches, that’s on you. Personally, I think it’s a surprisingly perceptive (and slightly subversive) commentary on traditional gender roles. Obviously, the elephant in the room in Knocked Up is abortion, and the movie would be stronger if it devoted even one line to Alison explaining why she’s keeping the baby.

Knocked Up also gets points for depicting a group of women who almost never show up on film: ladies who find pregnancy creepy. Charlene Yi’s Jodi asks Alison if she gets mad when the baby eats her food and Kristen Wiig’s entertainment executive comments that she’s grossed out whenever she knows somebody’s pregnant because all she can think about is them giving birth.

The interesting thing about Funny People is that the reason the movie doesn’t work is that Apatow wants to feature Leslie Mann too much. The first half of the movie is a dramedy about a lonely stand up facing mortality. The second is a romantic comedy about a dude trying to reunite with the one that got away. Either works on its own, but they don’t go together. Even here, though, the roles for women are interesting. Leslie Mann’s Laura has her own agency — she’s not just there as a plot device for Adam Sandler’s George. As Daisy, Aubrey Plaza is smart and genuinely awkward. There are plenty of male characters like that in movies, but weirdo nerd ladies are few and far between. Most interestingly from a feminist perspective, when Seth Rogen’s Ira slut shames Daisy for sleeping with his roommate, Daisy calls him out on having unreasonable expectations for her, pointing out that although they have a date scheduled in a month, they barely know each other. Though there are plenty of movies about “nice guys” who are actually judgemental assholes (see: 500 Days of Summer), said guys are rarely called out.

While it bums me out that all of the roles I mentioned, which are some of the best I can think of in 2000s comedy, came from a dude, I have to admit that no Apatow movie has irritated or insulted me as a woman the way (female-written) movies like Valentine’s Day and The Ugly Truth have. (It’s worth noting that Apatow is currently producing two female-written projects, Lena Dunham’s series Girls and the Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumalo-written movie Bridesmaids.) Apatow’s directorial efforts are about men, sure, but he deserves more credit than he gets for his strong female characters.

Leila Cohan-Miccio is a comedy writer in Brooklyn. She blogs here and keeps her work here. She thinks you should definitely make a Liz Phair Pandora station.

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  • http://feedittomygoldfish.blogspot.com Feedittomygoldfish

    While I agree with you about Katherine Heigl and her obscene hypocrisy in calling Knocked Up out for being sexist (elaborated upon here: http://bit.ly/al9XMA), I also don't think her Knocked Up character is all that strong. Her reasoning for wanting to keep the child was never really explained, her love for Seth Rogen is never really explained, and she doesn't seem to have any friends besides her sister. She has no network of support, the way Seth Rogen's character does. And her point of view is rarely shown as sympathetically as his – after all, he gets all the jokes, and the "funny one" in a situation is almost always more relatable than the "serious one." The same can be said about Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd – regardless of how sympathetic Mann's case may be, Rudd still comes away looking like the nice guy because Mann's character is downright humorless.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Josh-Kurp/46301792 Josh Kurp

    I like this piece a lot, and have to ask: were you listening to "Girls! Girls! Girls!"? Had to be something from Guyville, right?

    • Leila Cohan-Miccio

      The Pandora station plays it all!

  • amyfairycakes

    I agree with this for the most part, except I found the female characters in Funny People to be horrifically underwritten and there just to move the plot along. Leslie Mann is a terrific actress but her character in Funny People is so forgettable and is just there to expose George's childish tendencies. Meanwhile, Aubrey Plaza as Daisy has very minimal screen time and again is just there to tell Ira off at the end. Knocked Up actually does have great, three-dimensional female characters, although Heigl's character isn't afforded the same opportunity to be funny as Rogen or Rudd are.

    It is great to see that Apatow has finally began to use his
    considerable influence to support female-led comedies like Bridesmaids and Girls and hopefully this is a sign of great things to come for women in film/TV comedies.

  • http://www.anfscu.tumblr.com Joe Berkowitz

    Well put, Leila. I feel like Judd Apatow gets even more flack in this regard than Todd Phillips does, which is just wrong.

  • JoshUng

    Very interesting article. Especially about the Aubrey Plaza character in Funny People. When she sleeps with the roomate, as a guy, I do feel similar to the way Ira does, though I know I'm totally wrong to do so.

    Just wondering, would you suggest that a male-written script get reworked by a female writer to give the female characters more depth (or any group the main writer can't truly understand, whether its female, gay, ethnic minority, etc)? Or would you think that the extra hands in the pot would make the script seem less focused?

    • Megh Wright

      Men are just writing what they know. If all the women who complain about sexism and lack of three-dimensional females in film and TV would put all their frustrated energy into writing their own material, good Lord, can you imagine the things we could get done?

      • amyfairycakes

        "Men are just writing what they know." That excuse holds no water with me. Men have long written great female characters – just look at James L. Brooks, someone who Judd Apatow often cites as an inspiration. Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets all feature great, three-dimensional female characters and as far as I know, Brooks is not and never has been a woman. Similarly, Woody Allen has crafted wonderful female characters for his movies – Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan. Being a man shouldn't hinder a writer from featuring three-dimensional female characters in their movies/TV shows.

        • Megh Wright

          I'm not making an excuse for men. It's kind of a given that plenty of men have written plenty of beautiful female parts both in TV and film. What holds no water with me are women who waste too much time bitching about this issue when they could put their anger to a much better use. And saying that men are "just writing what they know" shouldn't automatically equal "MEN SUCK" in your brain, I don't know why it did.

      • JoshUng

        I agree. While some male writers have written good female parts, not every writer is able to do that, and saying "well, be better at it!" doesn't really solve anything of course.

        I think its importatn to consider how big of a role the female character is too. In many movies, most of the secondary characters are pretty one-dimensional. The pervey friend usually doesn't have much depth either.

  • Shannon

    I swear Katherine Heigl plays the same role(personality/character type) in most of her movies. Ironically, I find those characters: shrews, humorless and uptight.

    Anyway, Apatow's characters and plots have a certain level of truth/reality to them.

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    Loved this! I'm a fan of Apatow's work and the Catherine Keener role is the one I always point to when arguing that his female characters are ALRIGHT! Still, I'd sided with Heigl about Knocked Up – which I enjoyed when it came out.

    You make some great points. I've reconsidered my position!

  • millicent

    This post made me realize I sort of miss Apatow as conversation-piece. I'm going to crib from Carla Fran who agreed with you because I think her take, like yours, is really smart (wish I knew how to link in this comment-box), even though I don't quite agree. Here's what she wrote about the Apatow Woman Problem as it obtains in Funny People:

    "Even while the women (a mere two, Daisy and Mann), only interact with the men to demonstrate the men’s growth, they are working through their own revolutions. Unfortunately for Daisy, her deadpan humor is pretty blah and there is little to enjoy in her character except her hot pink skirt (which reminds me of Mann’s jeans, and that the whammy of time is insane in that it’s already the early nineties again…the mom jeans are no longer funny, they are unironic and unmommed). I guess Apatow has always been decent at giving his female characters careers, so maybe she isn’t super new, except that she is not the same kind of classically sexy lady that Apatow casts. Mann is also not the typical pedestaled lady, and I think the joke lands on the fact that she is not really a catch after all. Even in her first scene, where her lipstick is as shiny as her tears, and she blubbers about how hot she was, and how their love was so real, I worried that her character was not 100% likeable. When Rogen murmurs “she seems pretty much like a crazy actress to me,” I agreed. She's as self-absorbed as the rest of them (even in her cheating she's the only one to get off), and her insane request to keep Sandler in the house as her marriage falls apart is so reaching and nuts that we lose trust with her. Of course she freaks out on the way to the airport, her show is almost over. She is in love with a part of her past, and it’s a past where she has edited out the obnoxious parts. If she has married a version of George, then why cheat in the first place?"

    I see it a little differently only because I think what you're reading (more charitably than I) as "shrewishness in the eye of the beholder" is actually bleaker than outright misogyny: it's the peculiar joylessness that a life outside the man-cave, with a woman, brings. Again, that's not the statement Apatow makes outright–the movies certainly grant the principle that it's sort of jerky to jerk off into the nice towels. Paul Rudd's character weeps from guilt during the mushroom scene in Knocked Up. These men see how "bad" they are (no coincidence that Superbad is called what it is), and they understand the social imperative to mature, to be better, and the movies all finally consign the men-children to their adult fates. But the movie's JOY, its comedy, is a function of its ability to ignore those constraints. There is no comedy in domesticity.
    (This is why, IMO, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is so good—it sees this move a mile away, calls Jason Segel's character on it, and rises above it.)

    Zunguzungu has a version of this argument–and how it applies to Apatow as "social conservative"–here:

    http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/funny-people-douthat-and-apatow-break-our-kettle-and-want-us-to-buy-it-back/.